Taking a creative shot on aging

Photography consumed Mike Legel. He focused his work on portraits and live concerts. But a fire, more than 30 years ago, destroyed his equipment and every photograph to his name.

"I put the camera down after that," said Legel, now 54 and a Glendale resident. "I've been fighting to pick up a camera again."

He walked up and down a small hallway, covered with more than 20 photographs, inside the Glendale Adult Recreation Center Friday. A blurred photograph focused on the contrast of two hands of people of different races.

"The white one. That's mine," Legel said. "I took that photograph."

Legel's work, alongside a handful of others, were showcased inside the center through Theatre of Hearts' Creative Aging Artist in Residence program. The 12-week course teaches photography skills — from the rule of thirds to macros — to people in their 50s to their 80s at locations in Glendale, Arcadia, Compton and the Pico-Union district. Six students participated in Glendale, using borrowed or donated cameras which the organization uses to grow the classes.

The initiative is a first for the nonprofit organization, who has for decades steered at-risk youth away from violence through artistic and educational programs. The photography classes are free.

Ron Talley, a photojournalist for more than 20 years, teaches the sessions. He said some of the older adults attend the classes to prepare for future vacations. Others find their voice through the lens, like Marlene Schmidt, an Eagle Rock resident in her 70s. Schmidt found her niche for close-ups, such as the photo she snapped of hair follicles on fellow classmate Ron Shap.

"But now I have more sensitivity to nature and seeing things," she said, looking up at swaying trees through a roof window in the recreation center. "I never noticed that before. That could be a beautiful photo."

The pictures on exhibit ranged from shots of nature, to buildings and the students themselves. Shap, 73 and a retired painting and drawing instructor, has taken the photography classes three times. It helped him overcome his fear of technology after 35 years of using film cameras. Shap said he's seen himself grow as an amateur photographer and wants to delve into videography.

"I have experience as an artist, but this is like art on steroids," Shap said laughing. "Now, I carry a camera wherever I go."

And so does Legel, even if it's his phone. Legel gazed at a photograph he took of Shap and Schmidt leaning against a tiled, black wall. Legel said the pair didn't realize he took the photo and a second later, were in a different pose. He finds a thrill in "spur of the moment" pictures.

"Once I started seeing my pictures, I knew I could get back into this," Legel said. "The biggest thing I got out of this (class) is it's never too late."

For more information about Creative Aging Artist in Residence or to donate cameras, contact Theatre of Hearts at (213) 384-6878.

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